Angles at Play

The English have a genius for play. Which other nation of Christendom has at the center of its villages not just a church but a field for sport? Along with the church and pub, the quintessential center of the English village is the cricket green. In England: An Elegy, Sir Roger Scruton described cricket as having a perennial centrality in the physiognomy of English village life:

The game of cricket… originally a village institution… displayed the reticent and understated character of the English idea: white flannels too clean and pure to suggest physical exertion, long moments of silence and stillness, stifled murmurs of emotion should anything out of the ordinary occur and the occasional burst of subdued applause.

France did not spread boulles to her empire in the same indispensable way the English bequeathed cricket (not to mention football, rugby, tennis, etc.) to hers. For the Victorians, sport was an opportunity to exercise and hone the virtues of stoicism, camaraderie, fair-mindedness, and fortitude that would cultivate the ideal warriors, administrators, and gentlemen of the British Empire. What is sport? Sport is essentially ordered (and oftentimes competitive) play.

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Though in decline, the English gentleman is an archetype that remains renowned throughout the world. How can we define the gentleman? St. John Henry Newman wrote, “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain.” Is it a coincidence that in cricket the English gentleman wears a uniform of unsullied white like an angel?

The Venerable St. Bede recorded the famous account of Pope St. Gregory the Great’s encounter with a group of beautiful Angle children from Britannia in a Roman slave market in the late sixth century. When told where the boys were from, he pronounced them “non Angli, sed Angeli! Si forent Christiani” (not Angles, but Angels! If they become Christians).

It was this encounter that prompted the saintly pontiff to send the Apostolic Mission to Britain under St Augustine of Canterbury which would evangelize the Anglo-Saxons.

The Brazilian author Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira once posited that the English vocation, the primordial light of the English soul, is to realize an angelic innocence:

This angelic innocence certainly was the substance of the early medieval English spirit which gave many saints to the Church… in the English soul, there is something so honest and serene that it obliged Protestantism to assume a Catholic over-garment—Anglicanism—otherwise it would not have been swallowed by the people.

In these strange and difficult times there are small glimmers England is rediscovering her primordial light. Perhaps most prominently there was the Rededication of England as the Dowry of Mary on March 29th this year. I introduce here a reflection about another facet of the English soul that may be rediscovered anew in the near future: the English capacity for play.

Our Lady is Queen of the Angels. What do the angels, so often depicted as cherubic youth, do before the Thrones of Christ and His Mother? They adore, they contemplate, and they play. Karsten Harries wrote that the play of these “children without age” declares an existence that does not know the sting of death or the sundering between time and eternity.

A popular medieval poem, “As Ye Came From the Holy Land,referred not to the Holy Land of Palestine but to “the Holy Land of Walsingham.” Walsingham, England’s Nazareth, was one of the four great pilgrimage sites of medieval Christendom (alongside Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela) and was unique among them for being a shrine to the Blessed Mother.

We know that by the reign of Richard II (of Wilton Diptych fame) the concept of England as the Dowry of the Virgin was well established. The Franciscan John Lathbury (d. 1362) linked this concept with the angels:

Dicitur enim vulgariter quod terra
Anglie est dos Marie, unde
Anglici quasi angelici.

“It is even commonly said that the land of England is Mary’s dowry, whence Angles are as angels.”

There is little doubt that the angels in the Wilton Diptych are intended to have a distinctly English character, their red-gold hair even suggests a resemblance to the depicted King Richard II.

There was an established continuity to this traditional metaphor. In the twelfth century, St. Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx, wrote in his life of St. Edward the Confessor, in hujus ortu referentur angeli cecinisse, et Angliae pacem eius temporibus promisisse: “When he was born, they say angels sang and promised peace in his lifetime for the Angles.”

In 1399, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote:

The contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation has drawn all Christian nations to venerate her [the Virgin Mary], from whom came the first beginnings of our redemption. But we English, being the servants of her special inheritance and her own dowry, as we are commonly called, ought to surpass others in the fervour of our praise and devotions.

There is strong historical evidence that English devotion to Our Lady did indeed surpass others. Historians have confirmed that some of the most ground-breaking and influential devotions to Mary can be located in England in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. It is in England that we find the first ever annunciation of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the first commemoration of St Anne, Mary’s mother, the earliest evidence of the daily Little Office prayed in Mary’s honor, and the origins of the widely popular Marian miracle collections.

The celebration of the Virgin’s Immaculate Conception was highly controversial in the medieval period but was most prominent amongst common people in Spain and, originally, in England. Eadmer (c.1060–c.1124) was an Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastic and historian who recorded how the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, had suppressed the celebration of the Immaculate Conception which had begun before the Norman conquest, when England’s king was a saint. He wrote:

In former days it was celebrated more commonly than now, and by those chiefly in whom there dwelt a pure simplicity of soul and a humble devotion… And thus those … in virtue of their position of authority… did not scruple to abolish what the simple and perfect love of Our Lady… had established; namely, the feast of her Conception. Having thus seen the mode of proceeding of the eminent persons who succeeded in doing away with the feast of the Mother of God, let us cast a glance at the love of the simple folk who lament over the loss of so great a gladness.

Happily, the Norman suppression eventually gave way to a flourishing national devotion amongst all classes, and it was this Marian piety that made England merry. Henry of Huntingdon, writing before 1150, coined the name “Merrie England”—Anglia plena jocis—that was taken up in the thirteenth century by the encyclopaedist Friar Bartholomeus Anglicus:

England is a strong land and a sturdy, and the plenteousest corner of the world… England is full of mirth and of game, and men oft-times able to mirth and game; free men of heart and with tongue.

The origins of sport lie in the recreations and pastimes of pre-modern rural people. The agrarian and religious calendar shaped popular recreation as it did nearly every other aspect of English culture. From the land full of mirth and game, originated the primordial forms of many of the sports the world enjoys today.

During the Middle Ages, the Church’s feast days were firmly embedded in England’s seasons of agricultural labor. Plough Monday, spring-time celebrations, harvest feasts, and autumn fairs were vital moments within the rhythm of organic English society. Robert Malcolmson notes how feast days were the occasion for festive leisure and for archaic forms of contemporary sports.

Most of the saints’ days fostered in medieval England were tragically suppressed during the English Reformation, but many of the associated customs survived. Parish feasts (known as wakes) continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries while the principal holidays—Christmas, Shrovetide, Easter, May Day, and Whitsuntide—continued to be observed despite the best efforts of the essentially urban puritan movement.

Almost all the sports that Samuel Pepys described in his diary and that John Strype mentioned in 1720—including football, rugby, boxing, cricket, ninepins, and tennis—would go on to be systematized in the nineteenth century and exported around the world.

“The two remnants of the British empire are language and sport,” said Tony Collins, director of De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture in Leicester. “Britain is no longer a serious world power… but one thing that it can still do is point at the fact that most of the countries in the world still play British sports or sports that were derived from British sports.”

In How to Be a Conservative, Sir Roger Scruton quoted Schiller and suggested that the pursuit of beauty through art is one form amongst many in man’s disposition to enjoy things.

With the good and the useful, he wrote, man is merely in earnest; but with the beautiful he plays. And with that word he tried to link art and the aesthetic to dancing and sport, as the continuation into adult life of a blessedness that we receive as children.

If Scruton and Schiller are right, as I believe they are, that play and dance are extensions of our childhood enchantment, then whence comes the English genius for play?

What do children do when they are under the benevolent gaze of their mother? They play. Scruton calls enchantment the natural inheritance of childhood and a deeply personalizing force that we respond to as we respond to one another, often through play.

I believe England retains the inchoate memory of her enchanted past, her spiritual childhood—a time when the green and pleasant land of the Angles was refulgent with the radiance of Her Lady. England in her childhood was blessed by Her Mother; she was in the presence of the most beautiful. And in her blessedness, she learned to play.

The rain that waters England’s verdant cricket greens also provided perfect pastures for sheep. Sheep-rearing and the wool trade in medieval England created the country’s first accumulation of wealth. The evidence of this wealth can be seen in the cathedrals, abbeys, castles, tithe barns, and chapels that adorn the English landscape to this day. It provided the foundation for England’s rise. The Faith and sheep-rearing have always been entwined.

Caedmon was one of England’s earliest poets as well as a lay brother who cared for the flocks of Whitby Abbey. “St. Cuthbert, the supreme bishop of the north-east whose miracle-strewn life and even more miraculous death are enshrined at Durham Cathedral, was also a shepherd.” The defining national pastime of cricket was invented by playful shepherds.

In 2006, Sir Roger Scruton observed, “England is no longer a gentle country, and the old courtesies and decencies are disappearing. Sport, once a rehearsal for imperial virtues, has become a battleground for hooligans.”

“England was part of Christendom, one branch of a spiritual tree which was struck by enlightenment and died.” The bureaucratic disenchantment of life has in many ways been felt more keenly in England than elsewhere.

Pope Leo XIII famously prophesied, “When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England.” We have signs of hope that this is beginning to take place. As Joseph Pearce wrote in Merrie England:

Our Lady is once more enthroned at Walsingham. It was from Her throne that she appeared, almost a thousand years ago, to an Englishwoman in lowly Walsingham. England is Hers, now and for always. The land… is forever Our Lady’s dowry… Well may England be merrie!

Image: Cricket Match circa 1910 by David Godbolt

  • Theo Howard

    Theo Howard is former Evangelisation Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Southwark, England. His work has appeared in the Catholic Herald of London.

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